Khymera are an example of a band with a fairly fluid existence. Originally formed as a project for Italian musician Daniele Liverani and sometime Kansas man Steve Walsh, they gained a following despite not always being as impressive as Walsh’s Streets, or hitting the highs of another band from the Kansas family tree, the mighty Seventh Key. Walsh only appeared on the debut LP, subsequently handing lead vocal duties over to Pink Cream 69 man Dennis Ward for the next two releases – works that seemed well respected within the AOR community.
Seven years is a long time between albums and, naturally, some feel that Khymera should have called it a day, especially with Ward hardly being short of extra-curricular activities and Liverani’s departure leaving the band with no original members. However, with a strong set of songs and the overall tone being closer to classic melodic rock than Euro bombast, ‘The Grand Design’ is actually surprisingly good – far better than perhaps it had any right to be, especially considering the long haitus and inconsistencies in band personnel.
Things start very well indeed, as ‘Never Give Up On You’ taps into a strong hook that could be from the late 80s. Musically, too, there are no faults, right from the opening wash of keyboards and the shift into a punchy riff that sounds like cross between Danger Danger’s ‘Rock America’ and music from an old Saturday morning TV show. Ward’s vocal isn’t quite as smooth as some of his peers and influences, but handles the job in hand admirably, always sounding like a man who believes in his work throughout this performance, while a brief guitar break sweeps everything into a slightly higher gear. It’s got an old fashioned heart for sure, but as far as sing-along melodic rock is concerned, this is a top tune. Initially, due to a slower pace, ‘Tell Me Something’ sounds like it might not be quite as infectious, but a sold arrangement, a superb guitar solo courtesy of Michael Klein and a more than reasonable chorus wins out. Ward tackles his vocal in a Harry Hess like manner, the slight cracking of his voice making this appear even more like latter-day Harem Scarem in more than a few places, while session keyboard guy Eric Ragno (First Signal, Bonrud etc) fills all available space with pompy keys. In terms of old style melodic rock, this is another admirable effort.
With a compliment of tinkling guitars, ‘I Believe’ beavers away with a confident air before exploding into a world of harmonies that would befit any of the great releases from the last days of melodic rock’s heyday. The players come together in a strong union, but it’s Ward’s voice that impresses the most, showing no effort as he pushes his range into slightly higher registers for a big chorus (as you might have guessed already, this album isn’t short of those). After a few tracks to warm up, Khymera really hit their stride with ‘A Night To Remember’. If ever there was a case of a track being so strong it has the potential to outshine all others, this is it. The chorus comes with an enormous and unapologetic hook, like something resurrected from the 1991 Harem Scarem debut, with Dennis’s slightly gravelly voice meshing nicely with a choir of backing vocals, but – in an odd twist of fate for this album – as good as that chorus is (and it is good, make no mistake), it isn’t as lovable as the verse, which bustles with the kind of stabbing keyboard sounds that shamelessly recall Journey‘s ‘Escape’ period and the intro to ‘Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)’. A few plays only confirms all suspicions that this as a great track – and in more than a few places it sounds like a tune that would suit the legendary Jeff Scott Soto.
‘Say What You Want’, a semi-acoustic workout that takes a slightly Nickelback-esque route, is a musical move which suits all concerned. The acoustics don’t stick around for long; Klein’s only too keen to push those away with some strident electric chords and sweeping solo, but again, Khymera hit the mark in terms of huge harmonies and even huger hook, while ‘Who’s Fooling Who’ is an enjoyable mid-paced affair centred around Ward’s own pumping bass. The verses may be fairly workmanlike on this particular tune, but another harmony filled chorus saves the day…ignoring the obvious grammatical hoo-ha, of course. Elsewhere, the title track and ‘She’s Got The Love’ have a great punch throughout; the former is another classy offering which, again, would suit Jeff Scott Soto with its vocal arrangement straight out of the Talisman school of rock, while the latter shows some great interplay between Ragno’s keyboards and Klein’s guitar. Of particular note during this track is the welcome use of clean toned guitars on the verses – a feature of Klein’s playing that’s so obviously underused – and a cracking solo, shifting between widdly showboating, some superb twin lead and classic Eddie Van Halen inspired tapping, all shoehorned into a space that’s suitably succinct. There may be a couple of better choruses on other tracks, but for guitar playing, this is definitely the standout.
Of the couple of lesser impressive tracks, ‘Finally’ mixes a typical Khymera sound with some great guitar lines with some shamelessly old-school keyboards sounding like Jon Lord from the Joe Lynn Turner era of Deep Purple (now, there was a short lived phenomenon) for a bit of a lop-sided mixed bag, while ‘Streetlights’ is “power ballad by numbers #378”, where an over emotive voice wheels out cliches about the titular street lights guiding him home to the one he loves. Clearly not sung by a man on a council estate…but seriously, you’ve heard similar but better than this many times. A reasonable guitar solo lifts the tune from a syrupy, predictable affair to being an okay ballad. No melodic rock release is complete without such a lighter-in-the-air affair, but it’s really not Khymera’s strongest suit.
Why the Khymera name was resurrected after the better part of a decade for a band that includes none of its founder members seems a little odd, since it’s likely this would sell as many copies no matter what the band name on the sleeve (ie: one to each of the label’s staunch supporters and the AOR purists, then quite possibly nobody else). However, that should not detract from the fact that ‘The Grand Design’ is one of 2015’s stronger melodic rock releases. The aforementioned purists will want this whatever, but for those who haven’t tried Khymera previously or perhaps just fancy a bit of well-crafted melodic rock without reaching for those 80s discs, with the good far outweighing the bad, this is certainly worth a punt.